Porch Talk

a Southern Momma speaks


The Art of Conversation

I had lunch with three friends this week: one a former professor of Political Science at LSU; another a former professor of Art History at LSU, and also an Associate Dean; and the third a friend I met at book club.  I anticipated delicious food, a gracious hostess, and stimulating conversation and I was not disappointed.

The conversation ranged from a trip to Greece two of the guests had taken to the revelation of the recent discovery that William Shakespeare aspired to a higher social level, and wanted to be accepted into those who have their own coat of arms. A sketch of his proposed coat of arms has recently been discovered: we moved on to another topic before I learned if he had ever been allowed to make it more than that.

We talked about quilting, about the rich cultural life in Houston, about religion and art–and stories that made us all laugh.  With every topic, we learned more about each other, which is what conversation does. Or can do.

The conversation at my family’s dinner table was where I learned to express myself clearly and civilly, and where I also learned, from my father, that in a civilized society, one could express any opinon one had, but only if it rested on a rational premise supported by accurate, recent, and complete evidence, and was not presented in a deliberately provocative way.

My extended family was known for having high verbal members.  One of the most notable of these was my Great-aunt Gabe, who spent a great deal of her time visiting her riends and family.  A woman of great presence, Aunt Gabe was intelligent and witty, qualities much appreciated in anyone, but especially in a house guest.  When I think of her, I think of a story about Aunt Gabe coming into a host’s dining room for breakfast.  Instad of greeting the others, she said, “As I was saying–.”. and picked up the conversation where she’d left it the previous night.

To me, the art of conversation is one of the most important skills we can have.  Instagrams, Tweets, texts, may convey information, but they can hardly compare with face-to-face conversation, which can also be held on Skype or Facetime.   I read a recent article in THE NEW YORKER about a court case in, I think, New York, in which the prosecutor wanted to see the videos of the defendant’s interviews in addition to reading the transcripts, because, he said, facial expressions and gestures are part of oral communication, and without seeing these, it’s not possible to get an accurate impression of what was said.

I used to encourage my Freshman Composition students to learn the art of conversation. “To master it, you will have to expand your mind.  You will have to get models of language in your head, and you can do that by reading for pleasure thirty minutes a day, and by  forming opinions and contributing them to class discussion.”

I don’t know how many of these students followed my advice.  I do know that when  I think of some of the great American writers who grew up on family history and stories, who observed people rather than walking past them with an Ipod in their ears, I am grateful that they didn’t have devices that might be considered communication, but never artful conversation.




Special Month

June is a very special month.   It’s book ended by two of our most patriotic holidays–Memorial Day and the Fourth of July–and graduations and weddings, celebrating the closing of one chapter and the opening of another, occupy the days inbetween.   For  students who have completed one grade and are looking ahead to the next one, June is also a month of change, and, if a student is moving from third grade to fourth; from sixth grade to seventh; or from eighth grade to high school; the change is a significant one.

June is a month of memories.   Not only national ones, but personal ones.  When we attend the graduation or wedding of a family member or friend, most of us think about our own, and about the chapters those celebrations closed, and the ones they opened.  Some memories are painful.   Some are happy.  Some are somewhere inbetween.   But in most cases, “what if” questions come to mind, and that, in my view, while natural enough, can take us down paths to nowhere unless we answer them in a present and positive way.

By that I mean we should take these questions as clues to what we regret in our present lives, and then see if there are ways to change regrets into acceptance.  One way to do this is to think about–or even make a list–of things in our lives we are satisfied with.  Then consider each one, determining why we are satisfied with whatever it is–job, family, friends, leisure pursuits–and finally, see the elements in each that create the most satisfaction, and the elements that create the least.

Nest, consider the things we are not satisfied with.   Make a list, consider each one, and determine the source of our dissatisfaction.  Again, determine which ones create the most dissatisfaction and which ones create the least.

Knowing why something pleases or displeases us is important in finding out who we really are, and then choosing areas in which our personal choices can make a difference.  One may not be able to eliminate an unpleasant co-worker.  But one can learn to ignore him/her.   Reminding oneself that the co-worker’s behavior is not about you, it’s about him/her goes a long way, even if one feels personally persecuted.   My Aunt Roberta was a great example of doing just this.   “One simply rises above it,” she would say if someone described a persistently unpleasant situation.

I think one thing that impedes progress in coming to terms with our lives is forgetting that we change with age.   We continue pursuing leisure activities we have become tired of because we’ve always done it.   We continue to spend time with people we no longer enjoy because we’ve always done it, and we don’t want to hurt their feelings.  We join in conversations about topics in which our opinion is a minority one, though we rarely offer it.  And are angry at ourselves for not speaking up, because we feared the consequences of doing so.

The United States today is not an easy place to live.   Road rage, random violence, public vulgarity–and what my generation would call “tacky” media–surround us.   And that’s enough to cause a great deal of dissatisfaction!  But still, we have choices that can make our spot on the planet a better place.   We can choose to be courteous.   We can choose to be generous-spirited, and bite our tongue when derogatory words are in our mouths.  We can try to see issues, both private and public, from many sides, instead of making an instant judgment, which almost always results in a very narrow stand.

And most of all, we can take better care of ourselves.   Examining what pleases us and what doesn’t will reveal ways we can do that without abandoning our valid responsibilities to others in our lives.   As Socrates said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.”   I agree!

As June draws to a conclusion, take time to accept the closing of some chapters, and anticipate the opening of others, particularly if self-examination is the engine for both.




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Family Visits

I have just returned from a trip to the northeast, where three daughters, two sons-in-law, and three grandsons live.   The central occasion was my fourteen year old grandson’s graduation from 8th grade: the serendipitous occasions were baseball games my twelve year old and nine year old grandsons played.  I am a long-time baseball fan–my first memories are of games when my family lived in Lake Charles.   I don’t remember if the local team was a farm team for a big league team.   I do remember sitting on bleachers on  summer evenings, the aroma of popcorn and the scent of insect spray combining to create a button that, when activated, takes me back to those games.   The sound of a ball hitting a glove, the crack of a bat meeting a ball, the sight of a runner racing to beat the ball to the base–these images and others from the years we went to games played by the Brahma Bulls in Lafayette are the foundation for an abiding interest in this national game.

The Brahma Bulls, named for the bulls imported from India to mate with local breeds and create heat and insect resistant cows, were a D class farm team for the Yankees.   Ron Guidry, who would play for the Yankees, started his career on the local team. My brother and a first cousin were bat boys, positions that gave them opportunities for casual exchanges with the future star.So going to my grandsons’ games brought back many happy memories, and created new ones.   Both of my grandsons’ teams will play in the Championship finals on Saturday: both boys made the winning play in their teams’ last play-off game, and though I will be absent, I will be present in spirit, cheering them on.

The graduation ceremonies were impressive, dignified, beautiful and everything such a solemn event should be.   My grandson and four other class members have been together since kindergarten, so this commencement was especially meaningful to them.   Their school, a Rudolph Steiner school, uses the pedagogy developed by a German educator of that name at the time Maria Montessori was developing her methods.   The portfolios of work these students had achieved over eight years there were proof that the school’s methods work.

The class had the same teacher for eight years: Nancy Franco, who, to me, is a model of all a teacher should be.   She knows how to open young minds and inspire them to be curious about everything from the ancient world to zoology: I know from my own experience as a teacher that once a student’s curiosity is aroused, it is only a few steps to having a student who not only sees the value of education, but enjoys learning.

For all too many students in this country, learning is not enjoyable, but a challenge, even an obstacle, that must be endured.   When I read of yet another method that is supposed to improve student achievement, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  The Common Core is, in my view, one of most badly conceived of these methods.  The brain, especially the adolescent brain, doesn’t learn by rote, or by drills, or any other task that doesn’t fully engage the brain.  The brain is most effective when it thinks rationally and creatively–and it is especially effective when it thinks outside the box.

Educational methods that don’t provide the flexibility teachers need when dealing with the various ways in which his/her students learn account for many failures, much frustration, and a great deal of despair.

In my view, the most effective learning comes when a teacher does not consider teaching an adversarial situation.  I have never understood why anyone thinks that trying to dominate a class is the way to earn trust and respect.  In an ideal world, these two would be a given: students trust and respect teachers, period.   But we live in a far from ideal world: in all too many cases teachers must deal with children who have more than enough adversarial behavior in their lives.    When a teacher is thoroughly conversant with the material he/she is introducing to a class, and is not only enthusiastic but passionate about transferring that enthusiasm to the students., learning happens.

I taught Freshman Composition at LSU; U of L at Lafayette; and Southern University in Baton Rouge.   And yes, being open to class after class of eighteen year olds is risky, particularly if one thinks of oneself as a superior being in charge of lesser ones.   Or is simply afraid to take the risk of being laughed at, or worse.   For me, the worst thing that can happen in a classroom isn’t that the teacher occasionally feels overwhelmed, embarrassed, and fed up.   It’s when students come away from class after class resentful and less interested in learning than when they began.

My three grandsons are immensely fortunate in the schools available where they live.  They are even more fortunate that their parents, aunts and uncles, and grandmothers take an active interest in their educations.   We do this to support the boys, of course.  We also do it because watching young minds expand, seeing how one bit of information opens a door to more, is some of the best fun around.  Better even than baseball!


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The Walk of Shame

Two daughters and I drove into New York City on Monday to see the Degas exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.   A billboard advertising Kenneth Cole shoes caught my attention: there was a pair of beat-up walking shoes at the bottom, and the caption above them read–It’s not a walk of shame unless you’re wearing the wrong shoes.  I looked up that phrase to make sure I knew what it meant.  Those who saw the 2014 movie by that name already know what it means: a person must walk past strangers or peers alone for an embarrassing reason before reaching a place of safety and privacy.  I thought of the people walking past that billboard wearing the only pair of shoes they had.   I thought of how they must feel being told they walk the walk of shame because they wear the wrong shoes.

Has this country become so materialistic, so determined to always wear the “right” clothes, and live in the “right” neighborhood,  drive the “right” car and eat the “right” foods,  that it has no boundaries regarding other people’s feelings?  Persuasion by humiliation is all around us, and every time I see an ad that appeals to envy and greed, to a desire for “status” and power, I wonder how we arrived at such an empty society when the sacrifices of WWII are only some seventy years behind us, and when wars in the Middle East kill and maim and cause PTSD in our military, wrecking the bodies, minds, hearts and souls of men and women who fight in wars for reasons some people don’t understand and others have no interest in.  And yet, don’t their wounds and scars and deaths merit our serious attention?  In my view, they do, but perhaps paying attention to the severe problems our country has is the mental equivalent of wearing the wrong shoes.

Can you imagine being parents living below the poverty line who want desperately to help their child or children “fit in”, but can’t afford the brand name shoes and pants and shirts and backpacks that grant entrance to approved groups?  In the dark ages in which I grew up, no one wore clothes that advertised their maker.  One NEVER asked or told what anything cost, nor were material objects considered measures of the worth of  a human being.

When I hear or read of a child being bullied because he/she doesn’t have the “right” clothes or bike or whatever the current standard for acceptance is, I wonder how long we can pursue this downward slope until we have left civilized behavior behind and become total barbarians.  And I think of all the depression and anxiety and anger generated by the false “values” of our society, and no longer wonder at the unrest in a nation which, in my view, has lost the capacity to “walk a mile in another’s shoes,” and thus wears the wrong ones.


Joy and Poverty

A priest who has been a good friend for 33 years, and who has provided wisdom, comfort, intellectual stimulation and much laughter, had supper here Monday night.  He had just returned from Liberia, a journey he makes every year.   (Liberia is on the west coast of Africa; it’s the size of Acadiana.  It was founded by freed slaves from America, and it’s government is modeled after ours.  It’s the only African state to form a nation without a revolution, though in recent decades, there has been political upheaval and violence.   The result is a nation of people who live below the international poverty line.  Another result is orphaned children, including those who live in the orphanage where my friend goes every year.)

I of course asked about his trip, and while he told me about the orphanage, which was founded by a wealthy Californian some years ago, he showed me pictures of the children on his I-phone.   Children from six years old to teen-agers were lined up waiting to go into their school.The boys wore khaki pants and white shirts–they have two of each–and the girls wore navy blue jumpers: they also have a Sunday dress.   The boys’ pants and shirts were immaculate, not a wrinkle anywhere.   “They iron their unforms every morning,” my friend said.   He showed me a picture of the laundry room: concrete tubs with old-fashioned wash boards on top.  “The mission group gave them a generator, so now they have electricity twelve hours each day.”

English is the official language of Liberia; French is taught in the school.   There is also a patois, much like the pidgin English developed in islands when the crews of western country ships make contact.  There are universities in Liberia: tuition is one thousand dollars a year, but that may as well be a million, given the poverty.  So the children at the orphanage decided to have a fund-raiser, though, my friend said, given the country’s poverty they would be lucky to raise $300.

Then he showed me the photos that led to the title of this piece.   The children have a choir which would be part of the fund-raiser show.  But dancing was added, with an instructor to teach the children the steps.  No band, no piano, just a bongo drum.  I watched in delighted amazement as the teen-agers learned the steps.   They looked exactly like American teen-agers getting ready for a show:  pauses to discuss a sequence, dancers becoming more confident in their skill–and such joy on each face.   Then the little ones, six and seven years old, got up and began to follow the older ones.  They picked up the steps quickly, faces filled with joy as they danced.

One of the most famous phrases in the Declaration of Independence is the one promising “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”   And that, to me, defines happiness.   To be happy means different things to different people, but most of the time, it includes a desire for something.  “If I get that promotion, I’ll be happy.”   “If I win the tournament I’ll be happy.” A person sets a goal and pursues it, hoping to find happiness if the goal is achieved. The problem is that, unless the goal is something like losing weight or building character, other people’s actions affect our ability to reach our goal.   The boss promotes someone else.   Someone else wins the tournament.  The stress of waiting for the goal to be achieved, and the disappointment when it isn’t, combine to make us unhappier than we were before.

That’s why joy is a much simpler emotion.   For one thing, joy has nothing to do with set goals and attempts to reach them.  The title of one of my favorite poems by William Wordsworth is “Surprised By Joy.”  That says it all.   We can’t court joy, we can only welcome it when it surprises us.   Joy comes in all forms–a baby’s first laugh–the first hummingbird of the season–a sunrise over a beach–seeing a loved one’s face after a long absence–and a myriad of other human experiences that catch our hearts and expand them, opening them to welcome joy.  A character in one of my short stories tells another character that she’s learned you can’t hunt for joy.   You just have to ready for it when it comes.